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Off the Record Charts

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The new Backstreet Boys album hits stores today, but the record industry has been caught up for weeks in trying to predict how many copies “Black & Blue” will sell during its first week in stores. The fact that the estimates start at 1 million underscores how dramatically first-week sales have mushroomed this year.

Previously, only two albums--Garth Brooks’ “Double Live” in 1998 and the Backstreet Boys’ “Millennium” in 1999--had ever topped that figure, but four records have reached that goal in the last seven months. The high mark was the 2.4 million copies registered in late March by ‘N Sync’s “No Strings Attached.”

Why the sudden increase of records achieving what not long ago was considered an impossible dream?

Part of the answer is the overall growth of the music business, which soared from sales of $7.5 billion in the U.S. in 1990 to $14.5 billion last year, according to the Recording Industry Assn. of America.

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But mostly it’s marketing. The industry has responded to the booming media and public attention on first-week sales figures, which in turn ratchets up their importance to artists and their managers.

Those ubiquitous Backstreet Boys-Burger King ads and special MTV programs that function as infomercials for new albums illustrate the powerful avenues of exposure that record companies are increasingly exploiting. They are just two elements in sophisticated, multi-pronged campaigns designed to get pop fans into stores faster than ever.

“They’re marketing new albums almost the way movies are,” says Jim Donio, executive vice president of the National Assn. of Recording Merchandisers, a trade group representing thousands of music retailers. “The release of a new album is like a major event, with print advertising, MTV and TV appearances on Jay Leno, Rosie O’Donnell, David Letterman. The companies are taking a much more integrated media marketing approach now.”

When and where those efforts pay off in a million-plus first week still can’t be programmed.

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“It requires a certain kind of artist and a certain kind of buyer,” says Hilary Rosen, president of the RIAA. “But when those two meet, it’s kismet.”

At the moment, those buyers are young--teens and preteens who have both the time and disposable income to snatch up new albums the second they go on sale. The acts with the biggest buzz are either teen pop or rap-metal. But no one is ruling out another million-first-week album out of another genre, as country superstar Brooks proved possible when “Double Live” sold 1.08 million copies in its first week in 1998.

The big variable in all this remains the buzz, an elusive quality that the RIAA’s Rosen admits hasn’t been distilled to a science, and probably never will be.

“If we could scientifically create the buzz,” says Rosen, “it would happen every time.”

Yet record companies have become more scientific than they were 20, 10 or even five years ago in the timing of the myriad elements that go into promoting new releases. A key piece of information that’s getting unprecedented emphasis today is the release date.

“One of the weaknesses in the business for years was the fact that street-date awareness among the public was very poor,” says Bob Feterl, a Tower Records buyer. “We finally realized that and have stepped up efforts to make sure that people know.”

Retailers do it in partnership with the labels via in-store promotions, print and broadcast ad campaigns for the most highly anticipated new albums. Stores increasingly stay open late the night before so the most ardent fans can buy an album the moment it goes on sale at midnight, another way to generate the gotta-have-it-now factor.

Retailers, artists and record companies also have exploited the growth of the Internet. All routinely tie in to multiple Web sites to increase consumer awareness of release dates, adding up to a pre-release promotional assault that’s inescapable.

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The Backstreet Boys-Burger King and ‘N Sync/Britney Spears-McDonald’s tie-ins are perfect examples of pop music’s full assimilation into the mainstream, which has created more promotional opportunities than ever.

The concentration of the record business into fewer, and larger, corporate hands in the last decade also puts an increasing premium on out-of-the-gate performance.

“That first-week sales figure is [the record companies’] report card,” says Bob Bell, a buyer for the Wherehouse chain.

Credit--or blame--for the report-card mentality belongs at least in part to media focus on dazzling first-week sales.

“Why do people care?” says Capitol Records President Roy Lott. “Clearly it’s because other people care. It’s not like we make more money on first-week sales than third-week sales. . . . A key part of that attention on the first week is the media attention to it.”

Record execs help pave their way to an A on their report card if they can get MTV on board in a big way.

Eminem, Limp Bizkit, Spears, ‘N Sync and the Backstreet Boys all received major exposure through special MTV programs in the days ahead of each album’s release as well as on MTV’s popular “Total Request Live” show.

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But is MTV exposure the chicken or the egg?

“People may think just because we put artists on for a half-hour or hour special that that’s the key to a huge release,” says Tom Calderone, MTV’s senior vice president of music and talent. “But there has to be music to back it up. When we hear the first single or see the first video and [viewers] start calling and suddenly there’s a buzz on a certain song, that’s when we go forward” with special programming built around one artist.

The anointed teen pop acts also benefit powerfully from round-the-clock exposure on the Disney Channel and Nickelodeon cable channels, forums as influential in sparking buzz among their youthful target audiences as a blessing from Carson Daly and MTV’s “Total Request Live” is to the Limp Bizkits and Eminems of the world.

At ground zero in the mania over sales figures is SoundScan, the music industry sales monitoring service. Before SoundScan began collecting and reporting computerized data from retail outlets around the country in 1991, reliable sales numbers were not available--only the number of units shipped by record companies to stores.

Although just six albums have topped the 1 million mark in their first week during the SoundScan era, it’s widely believed no albums pulled it off before SoundScan.

Now, however, the million-first-week target has been proven reachable, albeit still by a select few red-hot acts, or labels (three companies--Jive, Interscope and Capitol--account for the six million-first-week sellers). Most expect that number will grow soon as well.

“Now that a handful of artists have done it,” says Wherehouse buyer Bell, “it’s something that realistically a label can shoot for.”

The only area of debate over the Backstreet Boys’ upcoming “Black & Blue” is how high above the 1 million mark it will soar in its initial week. (The group’s last album, “Millennium,” sold 1.13 million in its first week.)

The album will get a kickoff boost today from Wal-Mart, which is broadcasting a live performance by the group to its stores around the country starting at 5 p.m. as well as Webcasting it on the Walmart.com Web site.

Officials for at least one major chain think ‘N Sync’s record is within the Boys’ grasp.

“While the million mark is rare, Backstreet Boys have done it before,” says Laurie Bauer, spokeswoman for the Best Buy chain. “Their popularity is such that we believe they have the potential to break the record set by ‘N Sync.”

Others, however, think a new first-week sales record is unlikely because of the stiff competition from other hot holiday releases facing the Backstreet Boys that ‘N Sync avoided with their March release.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

The Million Debut Club

Artist, Album (Label)....Release Date...First Week Total/Current total (through 11/8/00)

* ‘N Sync “No Strings Attached” (Jive)...3/26/00....2.41 million/8.6 million

* Eminem “The Marshall Mathers LP” (Interscope)...5/28/00...1.76 million/7.3 million

* Britney Spears “Oops! . . . I Did It Again” (Jive)...5/21/00...1.32 million/6.5 million

* Backstreet Boys “Millennium” (Jive)...5/23/99...1.13 million/11.5 million

* Garth Brooks “Double Live” (Capitol)....11/22/98...1.08 million/5.2 million

* Limp Bizkit “Chocolate Starfish and the Hot Dog Flavored Water” (Interscope)...10/17/00...1.054 million/2.0 million

Source: SoundScan


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